Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘transition

End Of Mission

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Today, March 12, 2014, marks the end of Operation ATTENTION and the end of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan.

One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers are listed on the official casualty rolls, as well as a journalist, a diplomat, and two civilian contractors. One was a close friend. One was an NCO who inspired me as a young officer by his example of leadership. One was a friend to many soldiers I had the privilege and honour of leading later in my career. One was the best friend of another of my soldiers who is now finally finding a footing in his own life after his deployment. One was such a close friend of staff on one of my officer development courses that we had to shut down training briefly when the news reached us.

They all enjoy something of an immortality that few can imagine though. Stories are told of them years later, they have become their own sort of legends. Some have had ships and buildings named after them, some will just remain the subject of stories and regimental lore for years to come. Today, I honour them all – those who set off from their homes to try to do something good in the world, something for which they were willing to make such sacrifice. I am proud to have stood in the shadows of such men and women, to have worn the same uniform as them. I will long tell the stories of those I know.

Others came home wounded, including my first Platoon 2IC who also played a formative role in my military career. What he survived was a case of dumb luck as much anything. Some have visible scars of physical wounds. Some have invisible scars and are still finding their way. They will, with time.

I will leave it to historians to assess the outcomes of our efforts there, but I am proud to have been one of those who served there. For all the cynicism I had about what we were doing and whether it would really made a difference, I learned much there and came to respect and admire the resilience of the Afghan people. While much of their culture and view of the world remains a mystery to me, there I met a great many Afghans who were proud, decent people seeking to build a future for their country. If anything that we did there helped them to do a better job of it, then we have done something noble.

The truth is, I do not see how we could have done any different. I would be far more uncomfortable with the idea that we didn’t do anything when a failed state harboured an evil so vile as Al Qaeda. I will always be skeptical of the trumpets of war and the calls to arms, as I was when the United States invaded Iraq. I will always view war as the greatest of human failings, but at the same time I will always remember that sometimes things must be fought for and over.

Years ago, I was an instructor on a leadership course for junior NCOs. We made them memorize a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. Notably, this coincided with the move of Canadian troops from Kabul to Kandahar, into the hornet’s nest as it were. Here is the quote:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

The bold part is the most commonly cited part of the quote, but the whole passage actually gives it more context.

I’m not much of a nationalist, in fact, history teaches us that nationalism is a pernicious force in some cases, but at the same time I can say that having served in a place such as Afghanistan, I have come away with a tremendous appreciation for the good fortune I have to have been born and grown up in Canada. My own travels outside of this country give me a great respect for other cultures as well, but what I realized finally after seeing Afghanistan is that virtually everything people want to complain about here is so unbelievably trivial and pointless.

I have now been home for almost a year and a half – in fact not long ago I passed the two year mark from the day I got in the plane. I’ve gone into a new line of work which is going well, and generally returned to a normal life – but some days I actually miss being “over there”, even though rereading this blog and the more detailed journal I kept of the experience reminds me that especially toward the end I was insatiably bored and frustrated with progress, that the memories that stick out in my mind weren’t what it was always like. I’m less likely to slip into “war stories” now, more interested in hearing about how others are doing with being home.

In the summer of 2001, as an Officer Cadet, I sat in the theatre at the Infantry School and listened to our instructors tell us how much better we had it joining up at that time. All they ever had as deployment opportunities was Cyprus, Cyprus, Cyprus, they told us. Now there was Bosnia, and a smattering of other missions. It was all going to be so exciting. Then came the British exchange officer who presided over the course, a presentation I won’t soon forget. It started rather jovially, with a presentation interspersed with clips of Blackadder Goes Forth and so on. Then Major Geoff Weighell, a man I recall as being eight feet tall and as hard as Chinese algebra, switched to a much more direct, blunt, real assessment of the job, his account of serving in the Falkland Islands War.

None of us really thought much about Afghanistan. I had read about the Soviet experience there, and a university politics class I took included an excerpt of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Vs McWorld in a reading package, and it touched on tribalized societies like Afghanistan. None of us knew then what was to come that fall or how it would change things for the whole. Will we now say to new soldiers that at least they have more to look forward to than Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan?

As a last point, I want to touch on something that’s been a good discussion point amongst us.

Much is being made in the press of recent suicides and the mental health cost of Afghanistan. While it is undeniable that an appreciable percentage of personnel who served in Afghanistan (20% or so, I’ve heard) suffer from PTSD/OSI in some form. A spate of suicides has also made news.

What I want to highlight is that these aren’t the norm. It doesn’t really help those coming out the military to get settled into a new civilian career to have people assume that they might be somehow broken, when the reality is that most are in fact fine. Most come home, and go through some period of awkward adjustment and acclimatization, but then are back to normal, productive, great lives. Even those who have come away with some scars often make successful recoveries and transitions. What these stories in the media do is create a stigma that isn’t accurate or reflective of reality. It doesn’t help us at all. It doesn’t set good conditions for us to move on with the rest of our lives.

A good read on the subject is here.

As the Afghanistan mission ends, so does mine. I’ve told the story as best I can, as I saw it. And despite the fact that the last few posts to this blog all suggest that they will end it all, I really intend to stick with it this time.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for paying attention. Thank you for persuading me to keep writing.

How Things Turn Out

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I haven’t even hardly looked at stats for this blog lately, though I notice it keeps getting hits, a few here and there, for the odd search term that turns up, or whatever else. People come, read a page or two, and leave. Such is the Internet. I didn’t write this with much regard to that, otherwise I would have promoted it a lot more than I have. And frankly, it’s as much a reminder of stories for me as anything. Even the ones I can’t tell, there are cues salted throughout the posts which remind me of them, which keep them relatively clear in my mind.

What leads me to post again is a sequence of events that directly relate to this story. And I also want to circle back on something I wrote about last year that’s come into focus again. But I’ll get to that later.

When I started this blog, just after learning I was headed to Afghanistan, I shared it with my coworkers and was part of an internal promotion about their policies about hiring military/ex-military folks. This turned into more than I expected it to be and I wound up being part of big press push, which did actually shock me because I didn’t know about the scale of it until some people pointed it out to me.

So, a couple of weeks ago, sitting at home on my couch fiddling around with my iPad I get a note through Facebook from a name I don’t recognize. A friend of a friend, it turns out, who somehow stumbled upon the story that I was featured in which also covered veterans transitioning out of the military and into civilian employment. He searched for me on Facebook and found me based on the mutual friend. This man’s story is one I have heard before. He’s spent most of his adult life as an infantry soldier, and the years of physically intense work have finally taken their toll. His body can’t do it anymore, and so he’s about to be released on a medical category.

He tells me he would be in my debt if I could help him figure out how to find a job in the financial services industry because he thinks he would be good at it – he has the people skills that are the key to sales – the special sauce that you can’t teach people.

I tell him there would be no debt, and that I consider myself obliged to help him, as I would any soldier. As others have done for me.

A wise old Sergeant Major told me once, as I was trying to cope with the death of a good friend in Afghanistan, “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.”

Read that line again. Read it slowly and deliberately. “The life we have chosen…” We didn’t just take a job. We took on a lifestyle, not just work. Even me as a member of the Reserve Force. I became part of something much bigger than just a job. “…requires us…” This isn’t optional. It’s part of the deal. “…to hold each other up in times of trouble.” Even though I am “only” a Reservist, a part time soldier, my Regiment and the Army more broadly is like a second family. In some ways, they are closer than my actual family. That awful weekend in December 2008 when I heard that statement, I heard something else amazing. Sitting in a funeral home at the visitation for our fallen friend, one of my friends noted the number of people who turned up who we hadn’t seen in years. “Weddings and funerals, that’s the only time we seem to run into each other.” And then came the line that really stuck.

“Well, that’s family for you.”

That’s what it is. It’s family.

So, on with the story. I followed the emails with a phone call, and a long rant about Veterans Affairs greeted me, followed by an effusive if unnecessary apology. I know the experience. I fought Veterans Affairs to get an injury recognized as being service-related, and eventually threw up my hands and gave up – it was a minor claim and I just didn’t have the energy to keep at it. The system sucks though. They’ll deny your claim, then give you a lawyer to fight them. For ages. And the hope sometimes seems to be that you’ll eventually go away. Unless it’s a major, life-altering thing where you can’t afford to. But they’ll still fight as long as they can, in case you do finally break. I hate to sound cynical, and I know there are people working hard at VAC to make things better, but no one is likely to tell you it works well.

Armed with more information, I then shared the story with a military networking group I know. And within minutes, people I don’t know – and who don’t know the individual who sought me out – were already engaging. Some just tossed out ideas. Some gave contacts who might help. One offered to have his firm and connections in the industry try to help. One put me in touch with someone from Wounded Warriors who are getting their “release navigation specialist” to help my new friend – my brother whom I have never met – get what he is due and get on with his life.

So this ties into a second thing – and something I touched on ages ago in this blog – about the whole “Support The Troops” line. Last Sunday, an associate professor at Virginia Tech by the name of Steven Salaita published an article on Salon.com, a generally liberal leaning website, entitled “No, thanks: Stop saying “support the troops””. The subtitle/synopsis of the article is key: “Compulsory patriotism does nothing for soldiers who risk their lives — but props up those who profit from war”.

Predictably, right leaning websites, blogs, and so on seized on it. One, examiner.com, wasted no time attacking Salaita’s post by presenting excerpts out of context, and essentially excising what he had to say. As the internet tends to do, this elicited scads of comments. I am of the opinion that social media comments are often the best evidence of why our species is doomed, especially when they are anonymous. The responses were predictable: loads of “Internet Tough Guy” offers of violence or “Come say that to my face” statements. Loads of “Go back where you came from!”, which worked well with the photograph of Mr. Salaita included with the article, which evidences his Arab heritage. For the record, he born in Virginia. His father is from Madaba, Jordan (which is the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Jordan, I visited last year) and his morther is from Nicaragua, of Palestinian heritage. He omits any mention of religion from his bio, not that it matters. The comments get rich when they talk about how “the troops” are “defending his freedom”, while essentially attacking him for exercising his freedom of speech. That, in the words of my favourite high school English teacher from way back when, is a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

The article – as I have linked above – is worth a read. The author suffers from what I like to call the Dawkins Syndrome, after noted atheist and scientist Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins generally writes with a solid thesis in mind, and good arguments, but often falls into a trap of being unable to resist the urge to toss in some unnecessarily polemic statements which stop some from reading. In the middle of the article, you will likely spot where this happens to Salaita. I broadly agree with his premise though. “Support the troops” has become, for many but not all, a trite, vacuous, throwaway statement. It’s become a means of feeling better about not thinking critically about global events. I remember all too well when before the war in Iraq became reality that those who dared to question the wisdom of a war of choice against a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, and without evidence of the claims of WMD were told to shut up. “Why don’t you support the troops?” “Why do you hate your country?” I remember as well in those days that people said things like, “Even if you don’t agree, you have to support the President because we are at war.” It’s funny how that went out the window when President Bush left office and President Obama was inaugurated, but that’s a rant for another time and another place. What this is is precisely what Professor Salaita warns of: that “support our troops” as rote, as jingoistic patriotism in the form of slogans becomes essentially a demand upon the public that they not think, that they not ask questions, and that they not dissent.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and asking questions and demanding explanations should be the duty of citizens of a modern liberal democracy. Creating a mythical entity of “the troops”, who would take umbrage at being “unsupported” by citizens daring to ask why they are deployed where they are, is totally antithetical to that. It is repugnant to me. History is replete with examples of the horrible impact of a citizenry which stops questioning what its government does.

It is to me similarly appalling when politicians throw the phrase out, while their actions demonstrate nothing of the sort. This is not confined to any particular political party or ideology, that mythical entity of “the troops” is employed by all of them in different ways. It is fair to say that maintaining militaries is an expensive undertaking, and that it involves tradeoffs. Eisenhower long ago warned of the danger of the “military-industrial complex”, and he was right. Politicians must seek to strike a balance between maintaining such forces as are necessary to defend national interests and sovereignty, and providing any number of other social programs which are demanded by the broader public. The military must make do with the envelope it is allocated, and get on with the jobs it is given to do within reason. The problem that can arise is that politicians can easily make glib statements about how much they “support the troops” while giving them jobs to do for which they aren’t adequately resourced. Or they can make the statement while cutting the Veterans Affairs budget or overhauling benefits. Or voting against bills which seek to help veterans transition to civilian careers when their service is complete – either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often this is a matter of political necessity in trying to strike that balance I mentioned, otherwise, well, I don’t really know what drives it. I have ideas, but they’re not unique and you can read about them elsewhere from other writers.

You will perhaps note I’m not limiting my comments to what happens in Canada, and I am not about to start shilling for or attacking any politicians specifically. I can’t really, to begin with, because my position requires me not to attack government policy, and I won’t because that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. I am duty bound to serve the duly elected government and to support its decisions regardless of my personal opinion of them. Why? Because civilians control the military through the democratic process. And rightly so. I’m not going to write on specific issues because if you’re interested plenty of other sources do so. If I’ve kept you engaged this long and you’re interested I’m sure you will find them. If you get interested and get engaged, in whatever way you see fit, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

So then, is “support the troops” a universally terrible sentiment? No. Not in the context of understanding the risks of it. If you want to really, truly support the troops, then be an informed citizen. Ask questions. Demand answers that aren’t just glib throwaway statements, what in political science lectures are called “bromides” in reference to sleeping pills. Don’t just think of soldiers deployed wherever they are, but ask why they are there, whose interests are being served, and what their role is. If you want to do more, then I’ve provided links to organizations you might choose to support that make real differences in the lives of “the troops” and their families.

Do something. Don’t buy some ribbon magnet at Walmart (which literally does do nothing to support anyone but Walmart and the magnetic ribbon industry), give a donation to Soldier On or the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Look around your community and see what exists. I received some lovely packages from a couple of wonderful ladies who just wanted to make life deployed a little better and they can always use donations for those sorts of causes. Don’t have money to donate? No problem. You have time and energy and that is as valuable. Write a letter to deployed soldiers – they’re free to send generally, and if it winds up in the hands of someone like I was while I was “over there”, you’ll make someone’s day and get a response back. Write to your elected representatives and demand explanations as to why we are engaged where we are engaged, and don’t just take the answer and be gone but think it through and see if it really makes sense. Just do someting that’s more than blindly braying. Even if it makes you despise the military and its employment, I’ll feel more “supported” knowing your point of view is the product of thought and engagement than I ever will feel supported by some armchair general chickenhawk cheerleading for wars in which he would never fight.

2012 In Review And The End Of The Story. For Real, This Time

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

WordPress’ form letter of sorts about stats aside, it’s interesting to see the recap and how many unique hits this blog got. I’d like to think I told a reasonable story. It’s hard to make a job that often seemed mundane really interesting, but at the same time, I wanted to tell it like it is. Neither glamorous not awful, just a year in the life as it were. This recap WP did covered most of the period the blog did so it gives something of an idea of what was accomplished.

All I can hope is that anyone that read along found it interesting. That it gave them something new to think about. That it provided some perspective on a land far from home for most, but one full of potential, or beauty, of so many stories.

Though I mused about it in a previous post, today marks the end of the story. It’s January 4, 2013, and today marks the end of my post deployment leave, and the end of my Class C contract. My deployment experience is over, for this time around at least. Today, or rather, this morning, I’m oddly restless. It’s 1:48am and I don’t know why I’m awake. Maybe it’s my subconscious realizing that this chapter really is over.

I spent my holidays mostly quietly. I traveled to Ontario and reconnected with old friends. I picked up a job offer. I have the prospect of at least two more on the horizon. This weekend I’m working with my wife to start planning to move, because our fortunes seem to lie elsewhere. Later this morning I’ll close the book on several concurrent stories in my life and start on the next one. It will begin next week when I finally turn in all my desert kit. Then I travel to Ottawa, back into the warm embrace of the army for a few weeks while I wait and see how those other job leads turn out. Finally, in February, I will get to work on something new, what it will be I am not yet sure.

This, in a way, has been the story of my life for as long as I’ve paid attention, from one journey to the next. I always seem to land on my feet in the right place at the right time, which to me is a pretty good skill to have. Or maybe, it’s more of a knack than a skill. I don’t know, and I guess it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m pretty happy that things seem to turn out right.

Thanks for reading.

Written by Nick

January 4, 2013 at 1:58 am

More Civilized Pursuits

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I logged a lot of miles flying during the past year, most on a variety of military aircraft, with the occasional interlude of feeling like a normal person flying on a normal airline (some nice ones at that, I have to admit to being quite a fan of Emirates Airlines now!), but the last flights that stick in my memory were the flights home, not exactly a model of luxury, but functional and effective enough for the intended job, that is, getting from Point A to Point B.

Because it seems like an ideal time with little else to do, this post is again being composed on an aircraft, a much more comfortable and civilized Bombardier Q400 belonging to Porter Airlines, presently somewhere between Halifax and Montreal, traveling onward to Toronto, my destination. This is something of a business trip. At least, I hope it is. I’m headed to Toronto to do a whole bunch of networking in the hopes of returning with some solid job leads, if not an actual job offer. The latter isn’t likely given the time of year, the former is much more likely, and it’s what I am hoping for.

I nervously informed my boss at my civilian job this week of my decision to leave the firm – or rather, to leave the role I’m in and the firm if I cannot find anything else internally, and it went far better than I expected. I had figured it would be an unpleasant uncomfortable experience, rather like the last time I left a job, but it wasn’t. The writing, after all, was on the wall. I didn’t want to stay doing something I didn’t want to be doing, and it wasn’t really fair to anyone involved to do so. But it didn’t end how I expected. Rather than being shown the door immediately, my boss actually told me to push back my termination date in case any business I had closed (one deal might and will make me a few bucks), and so I could stay an internal candidate for any jobs that might appear. Definitely a better departure than I expected.

The purpose of my trip to Toronto is rather simple. I’m meeting with a couple of leads, and with a couple of organizations whose purpose is to help people transition from the military to civilian employment. It seems strange to need to do so, but the reality is that after a year away from the world of suits and ties in the world of camouflage and guns, I need the help. Old friends are helping with that which is incredible, providing me with networking leads and somewhere to sleep for a few days while I’m away. At worst, I’m seeing some people I haven’t seen in a while on this trip. Hopefully the rest will fall into place. I’ve got a week, heading back home on Christmas Eve in the late evening, which will make observance of some of our traditions complicated, but that’s the trade off. At least I’m home for the holidays, the roto that replaced as isn’t.

Written by Nick

December 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Fortune Favours The Bold

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Alright, I guess I am not quite done.

I have this thing for Latin sayings, proverbs, and the like. It’s probably the product of reading far too much history and the like, coupled with an inability to articulate my thoughts well in an original way which makes it easy to put others’ sayings to good use.

My high school had an interesting one, Palma Non Sine Pulvere, which no one ever actually explained to any of us that I know of, but I came to understand while at the Infantry School. Literally, it means “no palms without the dust”. It refers to the Gladiators, who in victory walked on a path covered in palm fronds when leaving the arena in victory. To do so meant going into the fight, getting covered in the dust and dirt of the arena. To extend it, nothing worth having comes easily. If there’s anything that can teach a person just what they’re actually capable of, of what their limits are, I submit to you that infantry officer training is probably it, and finishing the dismounted course (which is as far as reservists normally go) was the feeling of walking off like that. There were palms, and there was a whole lot of dust. And mud. And so on.

Before I sound like too much of a pseudointellectual, there’s a point to all this, and since it fits into the story, I decided to include it.

I have come to a realization. It’s time to move on career-wise, and for the past week I’ve been struggling with trying to figure out how to do it.

I have at least come up with some next steps. I tend to be a fairly deliberate, methodical, calculating person – I plan and scheme with a view to getting rid of every imaginable risk in a decision to the point that it can often be almost paralyzing. It was a habit I had to break working in the military, because as you’ve likely heard, a workable plan executed aggressively at the right time is better than a perfect plan executed too late.

As it happens, there’s actually a term for this. It’s called Kotov Syndrome, named for Russian chessmaster Alexander Kotov, who described it in a book he wrote. Specifically, he used it to describe a situation where a player in a chess game is placed in a complicated position without a clear path. After contemplating for too long, the player is then forced to make a move as they run out of time, and makes devastating mistake as a result. How do I know this useless trivia? Well, one of my favourite bands is Rise Against, who have a song called Kotov Syndrome and I had to figure out what the origin of the name was. Whatever works though, right?

So, I’ve contemplated my options and I’ve made a decision on my next steps, which are relatively bold, and involve something of a leap of faith, because I do not have everything lined up the way I want it to be but I have to accept that. It is the step into thin air, in a way. Again, when I was younger and less responsible, my friends and I had a hobby of finding things to rappel off. Bridges, buildings, whatever. It was usually an “unsanctioned activity”, but a good time. When you rappel from something like a bridge (or a helicopter skid, as I’ve also been able to do in a more legitimate capacity), that first bound is into thin air. You have a drop of at least your height when the rope anchor is below you before you get tension on the line which lets you control your speed of descent. That first step you simply have to trust that you’ve set everything up right and that it will work – that the anchor was set right, that you’ve hooked your gear up right, and that it’s going to do the job. And then you go, you free fall until everything catches and you resume control.

I’m basically doing that. I realized that I only have an illusory sense of “security” anyhow, and that I have a set up that should do the job when I step off the ledge. And I do.

There’s some organizations that exist to help with transitions – they’re mainly aimed at people leaving the Regular Force and transitioning to civilian employment, but Reservists coming back from deployments are often in the same sort of position and so they offer the same sort of help. I’m working with a couple of them, and planning to relocate, which is bit of a stressful experience on its own, but ultimately will serve me well.

I still have a backup COA, as you do – but I figure if you’re going to make one of those uprooting bold changes, this is probably a good time to do it. Fortune does favour the bold, after all.

On The Way Out

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Today’s post comes from a jump seat on a CC-177 Globemaster (why Canada doesn’t just call them C-17s is beyond me), somewhere in the air on the way to Paphos, Cyprus. We are headed to the Third Location Decompression Centre, which is basically a pretty nice hotel/resort on the Mediterranean Sea where we will stop for a few days before returning to Canada. Getting out of Kabul was relatively painless, and pretty well organized. We got into the airport with time for last minute shopping for those who needed to, and went through the process of getting cleared to fly, which was mainly traffic techs inspecting our luggage and palletizing it to be loaded onto the C-17. After that we sat in the terminal before heading out to the aircraft which was rather amazingly early.

The cargo pallets were loaded, which was funny to watch from my seat, because the loadmasters, after shoving and heaving a massive pallet with about 50 rucksacks on it realized that they had not flipped over the floorboards to the rollers, and were heaving against an anti-slip surface (basically, grip tape like you’d find on a skateboard). “Did we really just do this?”, one of them quipped. “Yeah, we did.”

Lesson learned: when flying on a C-17 when it’s cold, don’t sit toward the rear, especially if you sent all your warm kit home. Turns out it doesn’t heat that evenly, and the rear section actually exposes you to cold air being blown on you. That, my shivering mass discovered on the first leg of the flight, is suboptimal. Fortunately after a refueling stop, a crew change, and breakfast, it has warmed up enough that it’s more comfortable back here. Other than the seats, which are just jump seats and not something I’d want to spend more than a few hours in.

So, what’s TLD all about? Well, basically, the idea is to get us out of theatre, but somewhere not yet home to do some of our screening. So, it’s briefings from mental health folks, classes on reintegration and so on, and a chance to unwind. We get an allowance while deployed that can go toward a variety of excursions, so assuming I’m still conscious this afternoon, I’m going to go on a winery tour that includes dinner. My other plans involve checking out some of the historical sites (Greek and Roman) on the island, maybe renting a motorcycle to explore more.

After a bit of time at TLD we’ll head for home, back to Gagetown at first and then on to Halifax for me, where I’ll have a few days of work and administration before my post-deployment leave begins. During that time I’ll figure out what my way forward with my civilian employer is. While I’m on leave from the army for quite a while, I’ll likely start back to work fairly soon, because other than the trip I’ve gone on about before a few times, I don’t have any other plans, and the idea of sitting around the house for days on end – especially in November/December – does not really appeal to me. One of the prospects for a job is actually quite interesting. Building on the experience I’ve built up in the army both at home and on tour, it’s a training gig, training people in the last two jobs I held. Seems like a perfect, rather natural fit.

Beyond that, it’s simple things I’m most looking forward to. Being able to cook my own meals. You’ll never really appreciate actual silverware until you’ve not touched it for most of eight months, we noticed over a very civilized breakfast. I’m looking forward to non-DFAC and non-Afghan cafe meals. To beer and scotch, in moderation of course. To not being confined to a compound you can walk the perimeter of in ten minutes. To my bed. To seeing my wife. I only didn’t mention that first because it really is simple things that first come to mind oddly enough.

The strange thing to consider is that the people I’ve spent the last eight months with are all dispersed now, all over the world. We have plans to try to arrange a reunion of sorts next year, and I hope it happens, but it’s bizarre. And some I have no idea if I’ll ever see again… Afghans I worked with – both the staff of the school, but also Habib and Mustafa, who ran the shop that could get damned near anything, and Hassan and Samad, who ran the cafe where I spent most of my off time on rich conversation over chai, coffee, and meals. And our interpreters, who made my stay much more comfortable and interesting. They all have plans to emigrate at the earliest opportunity fearing reprisals should GIRoA not get a grip on security. What that will mean I don’t know – they have lofty ideas of going abroad, but the reality is that most of them lack much education and the prospects for them outside Afghanistan are not what I’d call outstanding. There’s the broader consideration of the impact of multilingual, well-educated Afghans fleeing as ISAF leaves, and how that will disrupt development. These people are our best ambassadors, because they came to know us, and understand that we aren’t the kind of monsters or crusaders that the Taliban and other groups want Afghans to believe we are.

And then I start to ponder the future of Afghanistan more broadly. As I felt our aircraft leave the ground and the landing gear retract, I had to wonder if I’d set foot on Afghan soil again, and under what circumstances. I’d like to return, not as a soldier, not carrying a weapon, and not confined to a compound ringed with Hesco Bastion and totally disconnected from the surrounding country. I’d like to go back and walk the markets in Kabul, to visit the lake at Qargha, to go to Bamiyan where the Buddhas stood and to Band-e Amir’s lakes. I want to visit other cities too, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, homes of exquisite architecture and yet more history. Any thought of the future of Afghanistan is rooted in the hope that before too long I’ll be able to go back to see the country for real, not through the prism of force protection and war.

I suspect that many on this plane – and waiting to leave – and who’ve been and returned – have similar pondering about what they accomplished. In a lot of cases it’s hard not to be cynical, really, because in a lot of cases progress was hard to see, and some of the things people have seen make the future look rather bleak. However, what we have set out to accomplish is a monumental task, and expecting to see results in a few months is not realistic. Only a long view will let us really assess whether we managed to make a significant difference. As I leave, I accept that there may have been things I could have done better, but I think I did a pretty good job, and it is really only hindsight that makes me wonder otherwise.

Day 210. Really. And Not Counting Days To Go.

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I have to apologize for not really posting a lot of pictures. There’s a few reasons. OPSEC/PERSEC is the main one – and to be honest, I don’t have that many that are interesting. I can’t publish pictures of anyone here without their consent at the very least, and I’m just not that interested in pursuing it. But if you want to see pictures of anything, well, comment and ask and I’ll see what I can do. The other limiting factor used to be bandwidth – uploading pictures used to take forever, but it seems my ISP has upgraded speeds here quite a bit in the last little while.

It’s Friday, which means a pretty slow day. This is officially “the weekend”, so things slow down a little. I’ve spent a good chunk of it down at the shops on camp, at a little cafe run by a young Afghan named Sam. Fridays they usually have a special on for lunch and dinner, and so today I went to see what it was – today it was kofta qorma – meatballs in a qorma sauce. Simple and tasty, and a nice break from monotonous DFAC food. Sam wasn’t around when I got there, but he turned up a little while later and sat while we chatted over coffee and shisha about his future plans, about Afghan culture, about the world in general. He’s worked on our camp for about four years, and speaks excellent English, as well as some Spanish, and has taken a lot of time and initiative to learn about the culture of the people who come to the camp. He’s one of those Afghans who can tell other people in this country that we’re not what we are sometimes made out to be.

It was sitting there that I started contemplating what going home will mean. I’ve been here for about seven months now, the surroundings feel like home, there’s a community here. We play trivia together some nights. We watch movies together others. We have fitness training together. We live in pretty close confines and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to be unfriendly or not get along. Even people I didn’t especially like when we deployed here, I’ve gotten to know better and get along with a lot better. A while back, during workup training, I wrote about an exchange I had with someone on the way to the range who turned out to outrank me and who wasn’t amused by my comments to him. I then found out he was going to be on the same camp as me, and at first, he was an annoyance on a lot of issues. Fast forward a few months, and he’s one of my workout partners, turns out to be a really decent guy with a good sense of humour, you just have to get to know him a bit. That’s how things go.

In a few short weeks, I’ll have to pack everything I can (hopefully it’ll all fit – otherwise I’ll have to mail stuff) and start the process of going home. That means no more trivia nights at the Brit Club. No more movies with the contractors behind there shacks a couple of nights a week. Everything turns into Facebook contacts to try to keep in touch. I will say, though, that that works pretty well – a lot of the people I work with who’ve gone home do make a point of keeping in touch, and we’re even planning a sort of reunion trip next year.

What’s feeling really weird is that I’m now, technically, an “Afghanistan veteran”. Veteran of what I’m not really sure. I’ve always felt kind of uneasy with that term, even a few years ago when I started dealing with Veterans Affairs about an injury I got in training years ago that continues to cause me problems later in life. Anyhow, the significance of the date crossed my mind today because today I have officially been deployed 210 days, which means I will have earned a rotation bar to my General Campaign Star, the medal I will receive for this deployment.

Getting the GCS itself is a little contentious in some ways. It’s the same medal that is worn by those who were deployed to Kandahar on Op ATHENA. When we shifted to Op ATTENTION there were some who suggested a different medal should apply so “we” wouldn’t be confused with “them”, who were in the thick of the fighting in the south. However, it was dismissed, and with some good reason: most of those people weren’t out at the Sharp End either. And besides, everyone who’s been here knows what they did here, and shouldn’t feel any need to either prove it or justify it to anyone. The way I look at it, the relatively comfortable go we’ve had was made possible because of the work that those who came before us did. What “bling” I have on my uniform is mostly irrelevant.

Still, I expect in some ways it’ll feel awkward amongst friends of mine who were there. I never had to attend a ramp ceremony (on this side, anyhow – I’ve been at Trenton when a good friend was brought home to make the trip down the “Highway of Heroes” in December of 2008. I’ve been lucky here that none of the bad things that can happen have (knock on wood, I’m not gone yet). We’ve had some interesting close calls, but that’s about it. So despite the fact that there are “Afghan Vet” groups out there, I don’t think you’ll see me showing up to one – because I just don’t feel like it’s something I have much right to claim. I came, I did a job, it was nothing all that special I often think.

Written by Nick

September 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

Musings For Which I Have No Title

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It’s been a crazy few days, both in Afghanistan and around the world. This film that some clown in California made has touched off all sorts of nonsense. Last Friday we were all rather anxiously waiting to see what was going to happen after Friday prayers. That’s when religious leaders tend to offer their opinions on what the broader public should do. Fortunately, it seems, they did not endorse violence. In fact several religious leaders were basically saying that Allah would look after it. And Friday night, it turned out, was pretty quiet. There were protests yesterday on the Jalalabad Road on the other side of the city, and while they got violent with burning cars, tires, and so on, they didn’t impact much at all. This morning we learned of a bomb attack on a bus load of contractors, as well. That happened on a road I’ve traveled many times near the airport. It’s lined with wedding halls and often referred to as “The Vegas Strip” because they are brightly lit up at night. Interestingly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a thug who rubbled Kabul extensively with artillery rockets during the civil war) – or rather, his group, Hezb-i Islami (the Army Of Islam) claimed responsibility for the murder of a number of foreign contractors as well as some innocent bystanders. He’s not been involved in any recent attacks, so this is an interesting and strange development.

I’ve been working with the contractors here on writing up reports and answers to RFIs (Requests For Information) for higher formations about what the future holds for the schoolhouse when we leave. I’ll be candid. I have no idea what will happen – but I think there’s some determination among the key ANA people to keep it going, and I’m happy with that. I’m not going to get too wrapped around the axle about it. We came, we did what we could, and hopefully, some of it will stick. There’s a temptation for us to get really really wrapped up in things to the point that we’ll just frustrate ourselves. We have to work on the concept of managed expectations, I suppose. We put the best effort we could into creating the product that we are leaving, and what happens next is beyond my control, so there is no sense in stressing over it.

In better developments, I managed to fit the carpet I bought into my rucksack, and should still have enough room to fit everything else in. If I get stuck, I’ll just mail it – but it’s better to get packed with my stuff. Mail’s taking forever, anyhow.
I’m also planning out my next adventure – a cross-country (or rather, across America) motorcycle trip when I get back, weather and career situation permitting, as part of my decompression plan… lots of nice highways and byways to ride, and I’ve lined up some home-stays with generous hosts that should make it even more interesting.

Written by Nick

September 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

More Scaling Down

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Before I write much else, it seems like someone is really desperate for info on Camp Clark because I get a lot of hits referred by search terms related to it. So let me answer a few of those – with the caveat that I was there for about a week several months ago.

1. It’s hot. Like most of Afghanistan. Not as hot as Helmand or Kandahar, but not as pleasant as Kabul. Look for weather reports from Khost City (sometimes spelled Khowst City), which is very close to it.

2. There is no PX there. At least, there wasn’t. There’s a couple of Afghan shops that should get you what you need, and I got the impression that it wasn’t hard to get to FOB Salerno, which had a pretty big one, though it was destroyed in an attack not long ago. I presume it’s been rebuilt though.

3. It takes a couple of days to get there from Bagram, because by the time you fly to Salerno you’ll have missed the flights for the day. Unless they’re expecting you, anyhow. But when I went, they were expecting us and we still had to wait. By the way, the transient quarters there are terrible, make sure a flashlight and earplugs are handy when you arrive, of course, they should be anyhow.
Hopefully that takes care of all the searchers.
More progress here. I’m now going over all the fun of taking over more of the staff duties since in a very short time I will be the last Coalition advisor at my school, and I’m basically completing the closeout work. Our ANA partners won’t move to their “permanent” home until sometime next year, so I’m trying to get everything in order for them to be able to function well after I’ve gone, which is essentially a matter of trying to ensure they have contacts to get what they need to keep functioning, and finding someone who’ll take a little bit of responsibility for maintaining contact with them. It’s not enough work to justify someone replacing me, but there’s still things that need to happen after I’m gone.

I’m feeling like I have little left to do, but that I’ve accomplished something while I’ve been here. One thing I dreaded the thought of was disrupting my “normal” life to spend time here only to find I was tilting at windmills. I knew that if I expected to change the world, I was in for an unpleasant dose of reality, but if someone was to ask me “did you make any difference over there?” I think I can probably say yes. How enduring it will be I don’t know, no one really knows what will happen here post-2014 when ISAF leaves and the ANSF and GIRoA are expected to go it alone.  Afghans tell us that everyone is getting prepared for what they view as some kind of inevitable fight and fracture of the country – but whether that will happen I’m not totally sure given that there are commitments to continue economic and military aid beyond then. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they left a government that was stable with its support, it was only when they collapsed and that support withdrew abruptly that the power vacuum that lead to the civil war was formed.

I’m not at the point of counting days, though I could. I know now when (subject to change, which is the only constant in life!) I will leave camp. I know when I’ll get on the flight out of here. I know when my flight is expected to land at Fredericton Airport. I don’t know when or how I’m getting home from there yet, but I know when I should be back in Canada and have a rough idea of when I’ll actually be home. And if things are lined up right, I have a trip plan afterward (which I think I’ll probably use to conclude this blog, as the ideal epilogue).

It’s amazing to think that in an environment where random violence is such a possibility, that things you cannot predict or anticipate can happen and change the world in a split second, that the idea of going home actually is the largest stress factor for a lot of us. I think it particularly hits reservists hard, because we’re not just going back to a nice spot of leave and then back to work with the same unit. I’m going to have to pick up almost immediately where I left off with my day job potentially, and depending on how things settle, I won’t have the time to take any real sort of break, because I’ll need to get working on making deals that will continue my income once I get home and my Army pay stops. That to me is far more stressful than really anything here and it’s what I’ve only just started to have to deal with.

I have ideas in mind of what I’d like to do career-wise, and while I’ve been deployed, suitable jobs have come and gone, now I’m waiting to see what will appears, there’s a few prospects I’m looking at, and that’s something I’m putting a fair bit of time (and a lot of satellite phone minutes) toward as I wrap things up.

This weekend, I’m planning to pack all my gear, doing a substantial initial purge of things I don’t need that I’ve accumulated, just to see how much stuff I can fit and if I have enough room for everything – otherwise, I’m going to have to get some stuff packed up to mail. I’ve discovered that in packing my UAB I sent stuff home I wish I’d mailed, and also, I managed to send two pairs of uniform pants home instead of one shirt and one pair of pants, so I can mail the surplus shirt, and be happy that laundry service turns around quickly. I’ve got all the stuff I have to turn in before leaving that I don’t use regularly sequestered away to make things easier there, and I know what luggage items I’ll have access to when so I can plan that packing accordingly. Not only will this serve the useful purpose of forcing me to clean my room, it’ll actually let me know what is left to do.

And for the next month and a bit, I’ll ponder what on earth I’m going do when I get home.

 

What Are You Doing When You Get Home, Anyhow?

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That’s becoming a pretty common question around here as we all plan to go our separate ways – there’s a lot of organizations rotating or leaving over the coming months and everyone’s mind is inevitably turning toward home. For the Regular Force guys, it’s not that complicated. Go on leave (quite a lot of it, actually), then return to work. It’ll soon be posting season and they’re all waiting to see what will come next. Some will be going on career courses. Some will be taking new jobs within their units. Some are getting out of the military and moving on to other things. One of our drivers who recently left us got accepted to school to become a paramedic and will be starting that when he gets back and ends his military career. Reservists, regardless of what country, tend to have a different set of parameters. Some, like my friend Chris who I met up with in Prague, just decided to spend some time traveling and will then figure out what to do next. Some will go immediately back to the civilian job they had previously. Some have full-time Reserve jobs to go back to once their leave period is up.

As for me… well… I have a civilian job to go back to. I’m going to take some time off while I’m on my post-deployment leave, but I’ll reintegrate into what some people jokingly call the “real world”, but I’m looking to see what else is available within the organization I work for because I’m not sure what I was doing before is what I want to do next. To my good fortune, it’s a big company, and there should be some great opportunities. I think I have a better idea of what I want to do than I did before. We’ve also started making some plans for my wife to continue her education a bit – a worthy investment, I think. If I’m going to drop a bunch of money to buy a new motorcycle when I get home, I can’t really not spend some money on her career prospects, right?

So, the bike. That’s the first plan. With 9D’s permission (always critical), I’m planning to pick it up as soon as I return, and after a short stay at home, head south. My parents winter in Arizona and will likely have already left town so I’m going to go visit them. I’ve been planning out the route and number of riding days, along with some stops along the way to see some people. I can’t really cast anything in stone because it’s all going to depend on making a call about the weather. Late October/early November might not work. Last year I put my bike into storage on October 22 just before I left for Gagetown, and the ride to Mahone Bay was pretty chilly – though a week later it was nice and warm and bikes were still out everywhere. In fact, if I remember right, people were still riding on New Years Day in Halifax.

If it looks good, my plan is to get as far south as I can as fast as I can, to Washington DC for a day and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and into North Carolina where one of my colleagues here who’s since departed lives. From there I’ll head to the Tail Of The Dragon across the Great Smoky Mountains (if the weather is good), into the Knoxville area, and then on into Arkansas, Texas (with a day off in San Antonio, I’m going to need it by then I’m sure), New Mexico, and finally Arizona for a week or so before I fly home.

Here’s hoping I have the frequent flyer points for a ticket home. I’m going to leave the bike in Arizona for the winter and return for it in the spring to ride back along a different route.

I’m reading through the awesome blog North American Circle to get ideas on routes and see how he found it went. He did it as a fundraiser. I’d love to do something like that too – but it’s not really original now. I’m hoping, however, that I can couchsurf lots of places to stay so I won’t have much to pay for but fuel. And I also hope my VStrom is a little more reliable than his BMW apparently was! The blog is full of good stories though, of the people me met and how people helped along the way, the kind of stuff that lets you thing that indeed people are generally good and worthy, which gets hard at times. I’m finding that there are a lot of couchsurfers in some places along the way that should be a help and I’m already starting to get in touch with them. The detail obsessed part of me is looking through Google maps and plotting distances, time, and routes. For the early days it’ll be all business on major highways until I’m far enough south that I can slow down a little and not worry about weather as much. Early November will still be sketchy in a few places.

I’ll get back from that in late November and have to see what comes of the rest. I know there’s lots of opportunities and options and so on. It’s amazing to think, however, that I’m probably more anxious about going back to work outside the army than I have been about really anything here – even that first convoy ride when I had no idea what was going on.